Tag Archives: SWP

Workfare: doesn’t work, not fair.

by Anne Archist

So, the workfare debate has remained in the headlines since my last post on it… That’s interesting, as I didn’t think there would be quite this much public anger over the proposals – if anything, I thought most people would just ejaculate DailyMailisms in the direction of anyone who dared to question a system of transitory, mandatory, unpaid labour. The government has been in a right flap over the campaign against workfare, resorting to a whole host of amusing tactics, with some degree of cooperation from third parties. I’ll give a run-down of some of the controversy with relevant links, and then move onto the question of the government’s real misdirection tactics.

A comedy of ostriches

First there was the hilarious claim by Chris Grayling that the SWP had “hacked” his email account. Apparently he told the Daily Mail that “‘Somebody used my email address to lodge a formal complaint with Tesco. This campaign has got fake activity”. He also told the BBC: “Let me give you an example, my own e-mail address was hacked by this organisation and used to lodge a complaint with Tesco, so I don’t accept the scale of the campaign is very large “. This was given short shrift, and he toned it down to the bizarre and vague assertion that his account had been “used in the campaign”.

After that nonsense, there was the question of Datasift research into the debate. Newsnight’s article on workfare suggested that the research had measured the hashtag #welfaretowork; if this is in fact the case, they are obviously idiots because most people are using #workfare. Datasift claim they included #workfare in their research, but I have my doubts as to how true this is. Perhaps this will be clarified in some way, but at present they seem to have deleted some or all of the tweets where they claimed they had included #workfare – several can be seen on google cached versions of pages but not on the actual twitter streams themselves. I have no idea why this might be so.

So where do we stand?

So far, so typical. Apparently nobody’s talking about it, those that are don’t understand it, those that do aren’t bothered by it, and those campaigning against it are – without exception – trots (which, I take it, are alien creatures something like this). This is the sort of masterful Machiavellianism we have come to expect from subtle statesmen like Chris Grayling. The outcome of all of this is that after companies threatening to pull out, protests and so on, the government have amended the rules so that people will no longer be sanctioned if they pull out of the work experience.

The spin on this change is that it’s all ok now because everyone taking part in the scheme is doing so voluntarily. The unspoken implication here is that it’s therefore none of anyone else’s business. I think this is a deliberate tactic of misdirection (combined with prioritising the demands of corporations over those of citizens/workers/consumers).

 The real problems

The government’s workfare schemes have serious and systematic problems that cannot be put right by ensuring that the schemes are voluntary. Participants are likely not to be in a position to make an informed and uncoerced decision about whether it’s worth working for free, due to a combination of government propaganda, poor ‘economic literacy’ among the general population and Jobcentre lies (they have been known to tell people schemes are compulsory when they’re voluntary, etc).

Even if all the participants take part entirely voluntarily, this still poses a problem for the rest of us, since it puts downward pressure on the terms and conditions of everyone else – if firms can acquire free labour based on the hope of future work, they are less likely to take on more staff, raise the wages of those they already have, etc. Labour-market competition will drive down wages in the private sector, which will probably then increase the public/private divide, leading to more conflict and hostility towards public sector pay and conditions, thus indirectly eroding them via increasing public support for the government doing so.

More harm than good?

This question of less staff being taken on brings us on to the next problem, which is that the scheme may actually make unemployment worse. The data released so far suggests that participants are on JSA longer on average than non-participants, and that dreaded beast “common sense” suggests that workers will create less jobs if free labour is available than they would otherwise. The notion that workfare would alleviate unemployment is based on the idea that a noticeable chunk of unemployment in this country is caused by a lack of basic employment experienced at an unskilled level. This seems simply unrealistic - I find it hard to envisage a situation in which employers are throwing their hands up in despair because they refuse to employ people who haven’t sat behind a checkout.

Are loads of huge corporations sitting around twiddling their thumbs saying “Oh golly, we’d love to employ someone to fill this role in the company, but none of them has shelf-stacking experience, so I guess we’ll just have to wait however long it takes until someone comes up who has”?  I find that very hard to believe. If they’re not, then the work experience itself isn’t really going to help. It merely means that a company that would otherwise employ someone with no experience will be employing somebody with some experience. And this assessment makes sense – how does providing more people with experience create jobs?

Recall that there are less jobs available than there are people looking for work. Part of this is because our economy assumes a natural rate of unemployment, of which possibly more in a future post. But nevertheless this means that even if everybody who was looking for work had exactly the skills, contacts, experience, etc they needed to find a job, there would still not be enough to go around. The fact that more skills are available in the economy doesn’t cause employers to want to employ more people; even a highly skilled labour force doesn’t mean full employment, and there is a massive difference between genuine work skills and generalised unskilled work experience.

On that note, it’s important to understand the difference between slating the work experience scheme and being against training for the unemployed in general. Work experience and skills training are different things; the work experience programme is about putting mostly unskilled young workers into unskilled roles for a short period of time in the hope that this will, in the words of the right wing, “get them out of bed in the morning”. I’m not saying this won’t help anybody – I can see how a voluntary agreement to try to do some work every week over a period of time might help someone suffering from depression and so on. But I can’t see it having a positive effect overall because it fails to impart real shortage skills; being a graphic designer, a computer programmer, an electrician or a doctor is not comparable to having spent ages in Poundland making items go ‘beep’ and cleaning up on aisle 5 in Tesco.

The conservative motto

Finally – and I think this has been somewhat understated by the campaigners against workfare due to their focus on the fact that taxpayers are subsidising private firms, etc – there should be a principled opposition to unpaid labour of this kind. The public debate about workfare represents an opportunity to forge an alliance around the issue of unpaid work; it would certainly include claimants and interns – it may also include workers in relation to unpaid overtime and even housewives and feminists of the Wages for Housework persuasion, etc.

In relation to workfare and interns, we should be arguing the point that if  you run a for-profit company and you have someone work for you, the fact that you are ‘providing them with experience’ is not an excuse for not paying them; all work ‘provides people with experience’, but we still pay unless the person doing it is young or has a history of unemployment. This is straightforward exploitation of people’s vulnerability in the labour market. Providing someone with genuine training, as I have said, is not the same as throwing them into an unskilled job for a few weeks.

People don’t necessarily have to be paid to learn useful new skills that employers are demanding and finding a shortage of, but they should certainly be paid to work. There may of course be exceptions in very specific circumstances like genuine volunteering via charitable or political organisations, but if you are creating value that will be appropriated for profit, I see no reason why you shouldn’t receive a wage for doing so. The very least the government could do if they’re not willing to introduce the minimum wage on the programme (although there have been suggestions that it legally applies), or even the apprentice rate for the minimum wage, is make the employers pay the JSA and any expenses directly to the claimant rather than subsidising big business with free labour at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is already an ongoing struggle to get the minimum wage actively applied to interns, but so far there has been little success. Given that companies in some industries habitually rely on several unpaid interns at a time in order to function properly, this is often not the philanthropic provision of training on the job to some lucky apprentice, it is the use of those desperate to break into an industry as free labour to grease the cogs. In fact, apprentices are actually paid, although less than other workers. Socialists often struggle with the incentive structure of capitalism and take a stand on the basis of justice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I can see a case from an economic and politically pragmatic point of view for perhaps conceding that the apprentice rate should apply to interns and jobseekers on work placements, rather than the full minimum wage.

Political misdirection

If people continue to be distracted by the question of whether schemes are compulsory or semi-compulsory or presented as compulsory or whatever, though, they will miss the important questions about remuneration and the wider efficacy of the programme. Personally I don’t think there would be such a big problem with making a scheme compulsory if it was paid, whereas a voluntary but unpaid scheme still raises my hackles. And that’s precisely the point – the government are trying to divert us from the real issues here by purposefully misconstruing the public outcry and leading us down a dead-end path for the sake of preserving corporate subsidies and holding down working class wages and conditions.


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Student Issues, Uncategorized

Serious Rape Ignorance

by Anne Archist

Ken Clarke has made the headlines in the past few days due to a serious of what could be called pseudo-gaffes. I won’t go into all the details as it’s easy enough for people to read about it here, here or here, though that last one has a very misleading title at the time of linking. Hell, you could even read about it on a left-wing blog, I’m sure, though I don’t remember seeing any other than here. Rather than outline what happened, I want to give a short commentary on the lessons and implications.

The first is that Clarke evidently didn’t actually know what ‘date rape’ meant, as he later admitted; he was under the impression that ‘date rape’ was the term applied to consensual acts between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old man. This is worrying in its own right, particularly in light of how often he must have heard statistics about date rape in his long career and misinterpreted them (e.g. the fact that the majority of rapes are “date rapes” in the common loose sense that they are perpetrated by acquiantances, lovers, relatives, etc – exact statistics vary depending on how you measure it, but every source I’ve seen puts it at more than 50%).

I’ve known what date rape was (insofar as these colloquial terms have strict meanings) since I was a goddamn schoolchild, so my mind is somewhat boggled at the prospect that Clarke doesn’t. Let’s be clear about this – he’s a 71-year-old Cambridge-educated man who studied and practiced law, was a Health Minister for 3 years, Health Secretary for 2 years, Home Secretary for a year, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor for a year. In all this time nobody told him what ‘date rape’ meant?

Secondly, it seems as if Clarke is also unclear on how the law stands, though this is a bit of a hazy topic. The law actually refers to his hypothetical case of the 18-year-old and 15-year-old as “intercourse with girl between thirteen and sixteen”, not rape (unlike sex with a girl under 13, which is now called “rape of a child under 13″). ‘Rape’ used as a legal term of art, therefore, would seem to be an inaccurate application in this case. Maybe he was using the word in some kind of loose sense, but that would seem to be at odds with the point he was making, which was that the legal term means something much wider than the general usage “in conversation”.

The exact wording might seem pedantic given that it’s still an offence, whatever it’s called. However, this overlooks the actual status of those hypothetical people in relation to the law. While the man would technically be committing an offence, CPS guidelines should prevent the case from ever getting to court. Many people don’t realise the true extent of what technically counts as an offence precisely because these guidelines are constructed to give some rationality to how the law is applied, so that people aren’t arrested and imprisoned for swearing in public or otherwise subjected to ridiculously inflexible laws.

It’s therefore unrealistic for Clarke to suggest that there are large numbers of people on short sentences for having consensual sex with underage partners who are skewing the average sentence towards a shorter period, as he did. And, of course, if there are such people, maybe he should be doing something about it, as the Justice Secretary – I assume his job includes the task of preventing innocent people being convicted as well as the more frequently-acknowledged task of ensuring that guilty people are convicted…

What really makes my blood run cold in relation to this story, however, is that there has been a public outcry – led by leftists and feminists – in this instance but none in the case of Tony Benn. While a public campaign for Ken Clarke’s dismissal gains momentum (though I expect it will go the way of Theresa May’s), I’ve yet to find even a single newspaper article about the latter; kudos to Zetkin for bringing this to my attention, in fact. This would make a perfect case study of the endemic sexism and opportunism of the left – the SWP and others bay for blood when Clarke implies a difference between “forcible” rapes and other rapes, but when their darling in the House of Lords does the same they laugh along as if they’re watching a Bill Hicks “war on drugs” routine.

For those that don’t know (as I didn’t until today), Benn said at a StWC meeting that “a non-consensual relationship… [is] very different from rape, which, er, most people would understand to be the seizure by force of a woman for the gratification of man’s need” (start watching at 3.05). Note the gendered terms (he’s not generalising here, which is legitimate, he’s defining rape in gendered terms) and the reference to a “man’s need” (yuck); presumably this particular view wasn’t one he shared in the letters to his grandchildren


Filed under Uncategorized

The General Strike debate

There has been lots of talk recently (on the left at least) of a general strike in the UK – the NUJ has voted in favour of a 24 hour general strike, and most left groups have been pushing the slogan strongly on March 26th and since.

However, there seems to be little understanding of how we can move from sloganeering towards helping to create a situation that could be called a ‘general strike.’

The writers here at the Great Unrest have tried to put down some of their thoughts and ideas.

This kind of reflection is crucial, otherwise we’re just ‘calling’ for something without understanding what ‘calling for it’ means, and without understanding what the thing we’re calling for actually is. And that’s not a good situation for a revolutionary to be in.

We encourage all readers to share their own thoughts on the general strike debate in the comments.

The TUC does not call strikes – trade unions organise ballots and workers vote to call strikes. Even if the TUC did have the power to call a general strike, it almost certainly would not call one.

A general strike can only develop in an asymmetrical way – with more organised sectors striking, and moving into more militant tactics – real picket lines, indefinite strikes, and perhaps most importantly, use of social movement unionism – service users materially supporting strikes against cuts, communal provision of services (food etc) on picket lines, even (at the most militant end) work-ins at public service buildings. The latter could take the form of schools continuing to run but teachers refuse to fill out forms, adhere to tests or the curriculum, for example.

The less organised may begin with work-to-rule, and build support within the membership from there. Temporal coordination of strike action will surely come at a relatively late stage in this process.

Would a general strike be effective? Not if it was a one-day affair, like Greece, Spain, and Portugal have all seen recently. A one-day general strike may be an important confidence boost (like March26th could have been), but an effective general strike would have to be longer (or at least very regular), with strikers using their days to raise support, organise mutual aid services, and hold public events to pull convince the undecided that disruption is a necessary price to save public services.

Liam McNulty:
One thing which worries me about the ‘General strike now‘ slogan is that it conceivably represents for the organised far left what the March 26th demonstration represented for the TUC: a one-off event involving months of planning with little consideration given to what happens afterwards. As with the ‘March for the Alternative’, in which the ‘alternative’ was left purposefully vague, the content behind the slogan is by no means clear. There is a danger that, if it were to happen, it would at best be a spectacular gesture; at worst could lead to demoralisation if it failed to have any palpable impact on the government’s political agenda. Indeed, by what measure should we, and the workers’ who take part, judge the ‘success’ of a general strike?

I have some sympathy with the view that if socialists do not raise the slogan of a general strike then no one will. However, I fear this is a mistaken attitude to take towards the labour movement. Unless accompanied with rank-and-file work within trade unions in various sectors to prepare the way for such an action, there is a sense in which the slogan of a general strike is being ‘handed down’ by exogeneous organisations from on high. It seems to me that this is indicative of a bureaucratic and formalist conception of politics, as opposed to one which is rooted more organically in the class.

It would surely be better if the slogan was raised in a manner more in keeping with the flow of struggle. Rather than being a corollary of the tactical vacuum post-March 26th (well, we have to propose ‘something’!), the call for a general strike might make more sense if proposed, say, as the extention and escalation of a current ongoing wave of industrial action. In this sense, its emergence would be tactically more concrete and less akin to a generic formula. The role of the organised left is not just to shout slogans from the sidelines in the hope that they fall on fertile ground but to judge the best opportunities for intervention, guiding the flow of struggle and providing leadership when it is most needed.

Anne Archist: Workers’ Power have formulated one of the more reasonable takes on the ‘general strike’ formula, telling us to “raise the call now for a general strike, call for the TUC to do it but don’t rely on them, and crucially build the anticuts committees … to coordinate action from below.” They’ve also made the case for indefinite action and private sector inclusion, contrary to the Socialist Party for instance.
Even when formulated like this is strikes me as a tactic that involves playing with fire. The only serious general strike Britain has ever seen was in 1926, and it teaches us some harsh historical lessons. Socialist Worker and other Trotskyist papers are willing to learn from the positive lessons like Churchill’s comment that the strike was “a conflict which … can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory”.

As usual, the same groups are largely unwilling to learn from the negative lessons o the experience: the general strike came out of coordinated action in a few industries that threatened to spread; the TUC sent a negotiator (both in order to avert the strike and during ongoing negotiations once workers had come out) who was notorious for refusing to take solidarity action and who was clearly on the government’s side, saying “God help us unless the government won”; the army, special constables and scab volunteers were called upon to run services and police pickets, leading to violent confrontations; the councils of action were unable to sustain industrial action for a significant length of time in the face of the TUC’s aggressive withdrawal; the failure of the strike led to a significant fall in TUC-affiliated union membership and to legislation that first made general strikes illegal (which was on the books for nearly 20 years before Labour removed it – it’s now illegal again, incidentally).

The questions we should be asking are: how we can build the kind of confidence that would lead workers to take non-tokenistic action in defiance of the law and the TUC leadership; how can we build the kind of organisation that would make such action successful (ideally through forms of action that are disruptive to employers and build class strength and consciousness while being sustainable and conducive to solidarity, as Patrick touches on in this article); how do we circumvent the official leadership of the unions and provide political leadership to the anti-cuts movement through this action; how do we minimise the possibility of a backlash that could do serious harm to the organised workers’ movement in the face of an unsuccessful general strike? Another vital question that is neglected by every discussion I’ve come across is quite what we expect to come out of a general strike at a time when social revolution doesn’t seem to be a short-term option like it might have been in 1926 – do we stop short at bringing down the government, do we expect to beat the cuts entirely if we bring a Labour majority to office, do we push further and go on the offensive (e.g. for full employment), do we struggle for political revolution to replace even Labour with a workers’ government within broadly capitalist relations…?

Edd Mustill: The Tower Hamlets strike rally a couple of weeks ago was interesting because it showed both some of the contradictions in the public sector unions, and some of the left’s current approach. Made up of teachers and local government workers, the majority of the room were women of various ages and backgrounds. All the main speakers, except one, were middle-aged men. A crude observation perhaps, but one which maybe underlines the disconnection between leaderships and membership, especially in the public sector. The chair, a young NUT member, did a good job of telling people that members make the unions, and that leaders need to be held to account. She urged people to get involved in their branches.

There was no floor discussion, no discussion of tactics and strategy, at the rally, so perhaps chanting was the only way to get an idea across. The danger is that, like some chanting on demonstrations, it comes across as pleading for someone else to act rather than self-organising. This is perhaps reflected in the behaviour of the left within union leaderships. This report from a Unison NEC (take it or leave it) says:

“…one after another on the ultra left accepted that we are neither administratively industrially ready to launch successful industrial action with the NUT and PCS in June and recognised the importance of planning for this properly. Only the Socialist Party representative from Yorkshire believed in the need for immediate action, if not a general strike…”

In fact the Socialist Party’s leaflet for the Unison NEC election mentions co-ordinated strike action, but not the ‘general strike’ at all. So how seriously are the left really taking it?

The groups pushing most strongly for a general strike, the SWP and Workers’ Power, wrote in their reports of Tower Hamlets that their general strike chant was taken up by most or all workers in the room. Apart from not being true, this doesn’t bring the general strike any closer. The idea that a group of workers “throwing their weight behind the call for a general strike” will push union leaders into calling one is tenuous. That’s not how union leaderships are forced into taking decisions like that. There needs to be an alternative pole built up in the unions, a rank-and-file pole. To be fair to Workers’ Power, they seem to be involved in a new “Grassroots Left” movement in Unite.

Rather than a question of what calls we make or what headlines we put on reports, bringing about a general strike is really a question of what forms of organisation we need.


Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Student Issues

Why Social Mobility is Shit (I)

by Anne Archist

Everyone’s talking about it. David Willetts has kicked the hornet’s nest most recently by arguing that feminism is to blame for reduced social mobility over the last few decades, but the concept itself is in widespread usage these days, from the left through to the government. Social mobility is good, we’re told; it gives people a chance to get on in life, to do better than the generations before them. That all sounds nice, but today I’m going to tear the whole concept apart like only a philosopher can.

The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other. To talk about (vertical) social mobility without imagining society in this hierarchical and unequal way renders it nonsense.

So the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point. Next time people imply that equality and social mobility go hand in hand, remember that while higher degrees of equality may correlate with higher measures of social mobility, real equality is incompatible with real social mobility.

Some people will be confused by the previous paragraph – generally more equality means more mobility, but the most equality means the least mobility? How can that be the case? Something that might illuminate the previous paragraph is the idea of multiple-peakedness; this is important in understanding certain aspects of politics. The idea is that not everything works as a linear improvement in a particular direction. It’s not true, for instance, that everyone who votes for the most right-wing party would vote for the second most right-wing party as their second preference (an assumption, incidentally, that seems to be underlying much of the AV debate at the moment; maybe I’ll talk about this more in a further post).

Suppose that a working-class voter is minimally class-conscious; they realise that free markets are just a route to the rich getting richer at their expense, and they know that they have a certain common interest with fellow workers in a similar position to themselves. They may also be racist or generally nationalist and short-sighted, however. That is, they may not be internationalist and may not understand their common interest with immigrant workers. They vote BNP because they see the BNP as a party that will fight for the native working class, will oppose free market profiteering, etc. Ignoring the question of how accurate this perception is, it doesn’t therefore follow that they would vote for UKIP or the tories as their second preference. Perhaps they’d vote Labour or even support the Socialist Party or something of the sort.

This is multiple-peakedness – the line on a graph that represents their preferences doesn’t have just one peak and descend in a straight line from there, but actually has a peak at each end. In this instance it’s probably double-peaked, with a gradual descent down from the far left towards the tories but then a big peak at the end representing the far right. In other instances there may be more than two peaks separated by troughs of varying heights, etc. Now we can apply this idea to the relationship between equality and social mobility; it may be that in, e.g. conditions present in Western European style broadly social democracies, equality and social mobility are correlated. This doesn’t imply that they will correlate in other conditions (other sections of the graph, as it were). After all, if a society is too polarised, mobility will be all but impossible too – social mobility is going to be low for slaves, for instance! – but if a society is equal enough then social mobility is going to be conceptually impossible altogether because there is no room to ‘move’.

While we’re on the subject, don’t forget the transformation of quantity into quality in terms of understanding the relationship here… This is the thing that Engels repeatedly explained in terms of water changing states – as water heats up (a change in quantity of energy), it eventually reaches a point where it boils (a change in quality of state). It could be that social mobility improves up to the point that it just becomes a socially/politically meaningless concept because there is little relevance to moving within the narrow constrains that a society that is basically equal. I’m not concerned here with laying out a strict analysis of the relationship between the two variables across the whole range of possibilities, but it seems pretty clear that at the extreme of total equality, social mobility is utterly non-existent. As I’ve said, social mobility presupposes an unequal, class-divided society.

Part II coming tomorrow…


Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy

Carnival of Socialism

by Edd Mustill

Welcome to the 52nd Carnival of Socialism and the first to be hosted by the Great Unrest. In light of recent events, we’ll be focusing on an international theme.


While Tunisian events seem to have been eclipsed by Egypt for the time being, they remain important. Follow statements from the leadership of the UGTT union here.

Socialist Appeal describe what they think is the development of some elements of dual power. But Tunisia Scenario has a more sombre assessment. The majority of demonstrators seem to want to give the interim government a chance. The author also reports:

“Since the revolution many of my friends have started wearing Hijab and growing beards (having a long beard and going to prayers could supposedly get you disappeared) and it’s one of the most visible signs of the revolution. We hear a lot in America about regimes around here that repressively enforce Islam, but a lot regimes are just as oppressive in the opposite direction and it’s nice to see people take their basic rights back.”


Of far left groups, Counterfire has probably been giving most coverage to the Egyptian protests. Understandably, most of the coverage so far takes the form of news rather than in-depth analysis. Socialist Worker carries some fantastic live eyewitness reporting from Judith Orr. Richard Seymour takes up the question of the army as an unknown quantity. Workers’ Liberty report on the formation of a new independent union federation. Entdinglichung has the press release.

The Egyptian blog Maat carries a detailed description of state repression and the rollercoaster of emotions unleashed by the revolutionary movement. The Arabawy blog is a good one for more eyewitness evidence, and reports that the tax collectors’ union is calling for the dissolution of parliament and cabinet.

Carl at TCF has produced a solid overview of the Muslim Brotherhood and a critique of the line on Islamism taken by prominent SWPers past and present, including Lindsey German, Callinicos, and Chris Harman. Dave Osler is pessimistic about the prospects for a positive resolution to the crisis from the point of view of the left.

Yourfriendinthenorth takes the “Socialist” International to task for keeping Mubarak’s party as a full member (yeah, I know…) until the last possible moment.

What are the prospects for further spreading of the unrest? Paul at TCF asks if the contagion will spread to Algeria. Here is the blog for an overlooked action taken last week by the General Union of Palestinian Students. They staged a sit-in at the PLO’s London offices to kick-start a campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council. Perhaps partly influenced by recent student actions in Britain and/or the movements in Tunisia and Egypt? Tendence Coatesy has a round up of developments in Sudan.

Puerto Rico

Meanwhile the Third Estate is seemingly one of few English-language websites to be following events in Puerto Rico, where a somehow forgotten student struggle has escalated into violent clashes with riot police.


The Republic of Ireland has been kicked around and stomped all over by international finance, and is now at the beginning of an important general election campaign. Andy at Socialist Unity has bigged-up Sinn Fein’s anti-cuts credentials and electoral prospects.

WorldbyStorm at Cedar Lounge Revolution predicts a very tough time for the governing Fianna Fail party if recent polling is anything to go by. A Fine Gael/Labour coalition seems likely, and the Labour leadership is criticised here for not countenencing a coalition with Sinn Fein and the Left.

Cedar Lounge also has one of the more unusual election broadcasts, from independent candidate Dylan Haskins.


Back home, the split in the National Shop Stewards’ Network following the Socialist Party’s decision to push through the launch of a new anti-cuts campaign has provoked remarkably little discussion, perhaps eclipsed by international events. The exception is this thread on Socialist Unity.

The anti-cuts protests of 29th January have restarted the movement after a Christmas lull. The anti-official sentiment was shown in Manchester when NUS president Aaron Porter was chased off the demonstration. Subsequent wobbly accusations of anti-semitic abuse have been discussed on this blog and at Latte Labour, among other places. SSY‘s article is typically scathing. Infantile and Disorderly has a detailed account of the Manchester protest. Truth, Reason, and Liberty has an anarchist perspective, making the point I have tried to make on this blog that the anti-cuts battle is not a debate but a clash of social forces.

HarpyMarx has some good photos from the roving London protests. Latte Labour has a detailed account of Saturday in London, including a critical view of the Oxford Street protesters’ lack of engagement with shoppers.

UK Uncut’s Boots protest on Sunday was met with heavy-handed policing and the use of pepper spray, as detailed on the group’s website. New Left Project carries a report from one of the activists, which includes interesting indications of the attitudes of a police officer and the Boots staff themselves.

RandomPottins’ description of an anti-cuts protest in Brent reminds us that local groups are gathering steam in between the national demos. Hangbitch reports that Barnet Unison is balloting for strike action, although there seems to be very little of this going on nationally, considering the scale of the attack on local government jobs.

Debates around the movement go on. OpenDemocracy is advertising a forthcoming book on the recent protests from an eclectic bunch of contributors. Luna17 posts a short defence of democratic centralism. Although it forms part of a discussion about the Tommy Sheridan saga, it has a place as part of the wider debate about structures that is ongoing in the movement at the moment. Rob Ray decries what he sees as the Trotskyist tactic of setting up fronts. Another form of organisation, that of sex workers, is discussed at The Daily (Maybe) in a guest post from Jane Watkinson.

Owen Jones criticises “traditional” nationalisation, which is an incredibly important point to make.

Sofie at Zetkin is currently writing a three-part post about journalism and the student movement, taking Laurie Penny to task on some issues, which is worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party can’t seem to get into the news much. Left Outside sounds a note of caution for those who are too optimistic about Ed Balls’ appointment as shadow chancellor. Darrell Goodliffe at Labourlist wants his party more heavily involved in the anti-cuts movement.

Leftist Lols

The award for Left-Wing Spat of the Week goes to Jacob at the Third Estate and Laurie Penny, who are engaged in a crucial high-level polemic about whether or not one of them is “a cunt.” (Un?)fortunately the comments thread is now closed.

Elsewhere Madam Miaow keeps up with the Julian Assange saga. The man is now being accused of smelling pretty bad.

So that’s our Carnival. The next one will be hosted by AVPS in mid-February.

Let’s give the final word over to Maat:

“Around me, friends are sleeping on couches, on the floor, in any empty space they can find.
I call them friends eventhough half of them I’ve never met before this week, but so many things happened, together we shared intensely charged emotional days that we became friends rapidly.

Yesterday I was terrified, I was freaked out like never before. I was shaking in bed trying to convince myself to sleep. I actually thought of writing a note and posting it on my fridge incase I died. Now I feel elated.

I have lived to see the uprise of the Egyptian people and the downfall of Mobarak. I can dream about having kids and me telling them proudly that I was part of this extraordinary moment.”


Filed under Current Affairs

Student activism then and now: an interview with Ian Patterson

The following interview with Cambridge academic Ian Patterson was conducted in the Autumn of 2008 by Ben Pritchett and Decca Muldowney for the second issue of the radical magazine Impropaganda which, in the event, never appeared. We publish it here because it might be of interest to student activists interested in the parallels, or lack of parallels, between campus politics now and how it was in the late 60s/early 70s. It is considerably longer than most posts on the blog, but is published as an interesting in-depth personal reflection on student politics.

Decca Muldowney
: Our theme is student activism then and now. When did you come to Cambridge?

Ian Patterson: I was here from ’66 to ’69, and I stayed till ’71. So I was around for five years. Nothing much happened in Cambridge in ’68, mostly what happened here was a little bit later – in ’69, and in the early ‘70s.

DM: In hindsight we can look at ’68 and see what was happening in Prague, in Mexico, in France, in Britain, in America, and all over the world. Were you aware of those things at the time? Did it seem like it was joined up internationally?

IP: Globalisation has happened since then, and that’s a big difference from when we were here. The sheer volume of information that we know now – we simply didn’t have the same rapidity of information, the same sense of what was going on in different parts of the world that we automatically get now, even though there were many more foreign correspondents then than there are now. There were only three channels on the television.

In 1968 itself, although me and my friends were vaguely aware of what was going on in Paris, and although I knew one or two people who’d gone there, it wasn’t on the top of our agenda.

Jon Chadwick, who is a theatre director still, wrote and directed a play which he took to Edinburgh in the summer of ’69, about Jan Palach and Prague, which I reviewed for Varsity. He was one of the agit-prop type experimental playwrights. And that was quite good, that indicates that we were thinking at least about the Prague Spring and the aftermath of the repression again there. I don’t think anybody was much aware of what was going on in Mexico – or in Italy either, because that’s a bit later. We had a certain distaste for the rather militarised demonstrating style of the Germans, with their helmets and staves…

Rudi Dutschke was meant to come to Cambridge, in the Autumn of ’69, and Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, refused to give him a visa. I remember Jeremy Prynne writing a letter and trying to get a campaign to allow him to come, but that didn’t come to anything. So I don’t know how much one thought of oneself as part of anything that you could call a movement, but certainly thought of lots of like-minded people in different parts of the world.

You have to remember, that at the same time, as usual, lots of silliness was going on, because it was Cambridge, and the silliness was getting as much press as anything else. So we did feel ourselves to be a minority interest – not a majority at all. I can hardly think of anybody else in Pembroke who had the slightest interest in these things. The friends I had in Pembroke, were mostly uninterested or apolitical, and I think that’s probably true of 90% of the people, at least, at university then.

DM: I’m glad that you’re saying that because people paint it as a time when everyone was involved and it was just incredible, and no-one ever felt as though they were struggling against a mass, a wave of apathy.

IP: I don’t know very much about the hard left and the Communist party left in Cambridge in that period, I don’t know what they were doing. I have an idea that the Communist party was probably selling the Morning Star outside the PYE factory, and International Socialists (IS) was moving towards student politics more and setting up their Vietnam solidarity campaign. Student politics in Cambridge tended to be dominated by IS in those days, which was what became the SWP, so there was quite a lot of getting up early and going out to factory gates, and perhaps a distaste for involvement with students in 1967-68.

I knew one or two people who were involved in that sort of thing and it always seemed to me to be a strange choice and not one that I understood. I hadn’t read Marx then, it was not until ’68-’69 that I began to get involved in that sort of thing. So, it made an impact, but not a very direct one.
I wasn’t aware of any of that myself, I was much more, well, (a) I was much more Situationist/anarchistical, and (b) I was approaching it all via poetry. It was a period of intellectual ferment for me, as I guess people’s second and third years at Cambridge quite often are, but it all seemed to tie in much better with the world than it often has at other times.

I was involved mostly in poetry and English faculty stuff. There was dissent in the English faculty, and everywhere else at that time, and there were a series of open meetings in the faculty of lecturers and students. At the end of ’68, probably, I jumped up and ran down to the front because I suddenly had this epiphanic realisation that there was nobody with a gun making you take exams. I said, ‘you realise, we don’t have to take exams? If anybody’s interested in not taking exams, can they stay behind and see me afterwards’. A little nucleus of people stayed behind and we set up this group. We used to meet quite regularly. The group was called X17, because it met in room X17 in King’s, the rooms of somebody called Steve Vahrman. (He did a column in King’s Parade, a year or two ago, in which he recalled that time.) We wanted to abolish exams. There were always interesting people hanging around, and people visited from Essex and LSE, and we got together huge quantities of material about assessment all over English faculties in America and England, and we presented all this stuff to the faculty… and nothing much happened but we were allowed to take books into the Tragedy paper. That’s all. But there was a committee set up, of course. And then there was a sub-committee of that committee to look at exams.

Raymond Williams said to me and my friend Nick Totton as we were walking along King’s Parade after the first meeting, ‘I wouldn’t expect much to happen from this meeting, the university has been quite adept at fighting off change for 800 years, I don’t think you’re going to make a big impact on it now’. Which was true.

By the summer, by the time that the LSE events had been happening, and there’d been a certain amount of interchange, various groups were set up so that in Cambridge then there was a small group of the Radical Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), and there were a few people who thought of themselves as Situationists.There was a group of people in ’68-’69 which split off from the X17 group called the ‘Academic Cripples’, and there was a march which was quite well attended through the centre of town with a banner saying ‘Academic Cripples – Abolish Exams’.

There was certainly quite a lot to complain about and the syllabuses were, certainly in the humanities, academic and unable to cope, both in their teaching methods, and in their subject matter, with things that we wanted to know more about. In the English faculty, for example, we weren’t allowed to study Marx or Freud, which we obviously wanted to do. That changed quite rapidly in the aftermath of ’68. There was a ‘free’ university set up (it wasn’t really a free university or an alternative university) which put on certain events – I remember going to hear a talk on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by Ben Brewster, which we thought was tremendously exciting. The place was absolutely crowded with people listening to this – it was actually rather dry, academic stuff, but it was the sort of thing that we’d never come into contact with before. In the ’68-’69 year, the English society or club ran a series of alternative seminars on Marx and on Freud. The Freud seminar, a sort of reading group, was led by a graduate student from Columbia. We read through the New Introductory Lectures and it was genuinely inspiring and educational.

In the end of ’68 there was a sit-in at the Senate House. I wasn’t there – I was ill. I can’t remember now what the main issues were, but perhaps there was something to do with the restrictive regulations we lived under, and with the admission of women? There wasn’t very much personal freedom. It was still the days when colleges were locked at 10 or 11, and there were a lot of petty restrictions, and people could be sent down for having people to stay in their rooms at night and so on, rather strange to think of, but… When people were forced out after two days, on Senate House lawn there were all lines of hunting and rowing people from Magdalen and Trinity, with whips, baying for blood. Coming out of the Senate House the people were hit and swung at by this gauntlet of aristos and hunters and unpleasant people in tweeds, and people who wanted to be like that. So there was a certain amount of violence, mostly from the right, though I don’t think that that meant there was a huge polarisation in the university between left and right.

The other important feature of student politics from that time was The Shilling Paper, the alternative to Varsity. It was the left-wing newspaper that was deliberately set up to be based in the town not in the university. It covered town and university issues impartially. It was printed by what was then the new printing process, offset litho, so it didn’t have to use all the old fashioned newspaper print technology which Varsity used. Some of the people who were involved in starting that were around IS, but there were anarchists and there were Situationist-type people, and a lot of good unaligned lefties. The Shilling Paper covered strikes, and any kind of political unrest and tried to explain the university to the town, the town to the university. It was jolly good – a bit expensive actually – a shilling was as much as you would want to pay for a paper, so there was a slight element of good will in buying it. But it was an institution for some years. There may be copies in the Cambridge collection in the university library.

Later on there was the Garden House affair. That’s 1970 I think. The Greek Junta was in power, and the Garden House Hotel in collaboration with a local travel agent, was promoting Greece as a holiday destination, and the Greek embassy was collaborating with them. Because nothing else much was going on, and because this was a way of demonstrating against the Junta, there was a big demonstration, and it got violent. I think it was provoked, to some extent, by the police. Nothing very much in the way of damage happened on this occasion, I think mostly it was broken glass. When you look back on it, it was a time of extraordinary repression, when they came to court. The people who were arrested came up against Lord Justice Melford Stevenson, who was also the judge in the Angry Brigade trial, and who was incredibly right wing – he lived in a house called ‘Truncheons’… For students to get up to 18 months in prison was really quite extraordinary. The arrests were pretty indiscriminate. Lord Eatwell, the current President of Queens’, was originally arrested, and then released for lack of evidence; he was described by the judge as ‘an evil influence’.

But back to the late sixties. There was some quite wild and liberational drama going on. Bruce Birchall at Peterhouse, with his mass of flowing curly hair, did a great version of The Bacchae in Peterhouse gardens, experimental, avant-garde and political, with audience involvement and (I think) music, maybe from Henry Cow, with Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson. The other student newspaper thing was called Broadsheet, a listings mag started by a guy called Mike Sparrow (who went on to work for BBC London). It came out as a single or double sheet, and it listed everything that was on that week. It was a wonderful thing, it was the first time there’d ever been one, I think it even predated, or certainly was at the same time as Time Out. And that became quite important for people, it brought people together, allowed people to advertise events. These were pre-mobile phone days of course, pre-phone – nobody had a phone in their room, so if you wanted to telephone somebody up, you couldn’t – you could ring people from a phonebox, that was about it. If you wanted to get in touch with somebody, either you went round to their room, or you sent them a letter. And dropped a note off in their pigeon-hole, that was the only way of doing it. Or you hoped to see them. So, meeting people at places like Sidgwick, or King’s Bar, was much more important – most colleges didn’t have bars in those days, certainly my college, Pembroke, didn’t have a bar.

I think it was much easier also – although this may just have been a sign of our shallowness – to recognise sympathetic people by what they looked like. People were certainly defined much more by their exteriors, by the kind of clothes they wore and how long their hair was. By whether they had beards or not. If you went into a space and there was a group of people with hair on their shoulders, and floppy bell-bottomed trousers, and tie-dyed t-shirts, then you made a bee-line for them, rather than the people in tweed jackets and grey flannels. It hadn’t reached a point where fashion had taken over identity, so there was still an element of protest in the way you dressed. But there was also of course a lot of dressing up in the usual sort of way, so sometimes I looked like the sort of person that I would make a bee-line for, other times I was wearing a three-piece demob suit and fair isle jersey. When I was pretending to be a ‘30s poet. Also, I mostly wore bare feet, which was another thing that people did.

DM: That’s still the height of protest in King’s, people not wearing shoes. People have not moved on greatly.

IP: It’s a strange kind of protest, an uncomfortable one too…

As far as I was concerned, and as far as a lot of people were concerned, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the artistic avant-garde and the political avant-garde; they were much closer. So from my point of view, as poet, my involvement in this was first of all discovering the whole hinterland of social anthropology, Marxism, psychoanalysis and realising that this fantastic literature of thinking about the stuff I wanted to think about had been going on for a hundred years without my knowing about it. This was most excitingly being dealt with by the experimental writers that I was just discovering, partly people like Ed Dorn and Charles Olson, J.H. Prynne, partly writers like Brecht, and Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg and Pete Brown. So there were two kinds of things which were meeting also in music, which also linked in with soft drugs. But too much dope tended to lead to people lying around, and too little tended to people being too straight, so there was a balance to be struck.

The first consciously ‘alternative’ poetry readings in Cambridge, took place in King’s cellar, where it had just been opened as the cellar bar in 1967-’68 probably or autumn of ’69, with Nick Totton I think, or maybe David Shapiro, and me. The other influence on us was from America, particularly with affiliated students and post-graduate students, some of whom were draft dodging, by being post-graduate students. And there were two ways in which they were influential: one, there was a group of American post-graduate students who ran an LSD making lab in their house, which was quite important for some people – though not for me – but the acid culture came through that, but also there were people who’d been involved in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society…

The Americans, most of them postgraduate students so a bit older, had experience of what was going on in the States, and particularly in the West coast, in Berkeley, and so on, and also people from Columbia who’d been working in poetry with Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and were introducing us to all that kind of stuff. So a whole new kind of poetry was coming in, at the same time of course as rock music was the accompaniment to all this, because all the great rock music was happening at that time.

Ben Pritchett: How might somebody take the experience of that period and translate it into something that might be helpful for us today?

IP: One of the things I think that’s important is linking things together, linking different aspects of one’s life up. Something that was really attractive to me about reading Marcuse, who was a very influential figure on my thinking then, particularly reading Eros and Civilization, was the idea that having fun was part of revolution. A social order that didn’t allow varieties of sexual pleasure, and varieties of entertaining intellectual experience, theatre and painting, as important parts of how you made sense of life, was not a social order to be supported.

Of course, part of the sexual energy that fuelled the stuff in universities, particularly universities like Cambridge, was to do with the fact that there was a ratio of ten to one between men and women. So the idea that it might be better must have been a factor, though we weren’t actively, on the whole, campaigning for that in Cambridge at the time – it wasn’t at the top of our list. Although there were lots of enjoyable things to do, and one had lots of nice relationships, the idea that it could be represented by the sort of thing that you get from a picture of a rock festival – all these images that you get of the ‘summer of love’ – is quite wrong. There simply were, in the streets and everywhere else, or at lectures, overwhelmingly, men, and in colleges, overwhelmingly men. Girls walked through, or walked in, or were guests, or were visitors, and then disappeared again. So there’s an element of fantasy in most people’s recollection of Cambridge.

But to get back to your question, I think we were motivated by the idea that something desperately bad had happened as a consequence of capitalism and the division of labour, and we’d lost touch with all sorts of potential, how life ought to be, and were living in a grey, half useless world, leaving half of us unstimulated, unused, and unexplored. The sense of discovery was partly from discovering that there was more to you yourself than you had thought there was, and there could be more to everybody.

BP: People might argue that one difference today is that this pleasure principle has been co-opted into capitalism – which makes it more difficult to have desire driving your protest…

IP: Absolutely. I still think it’s important to do it, and to try and reclaim it from the advertisers and the merchandisers, and to say that the sheerest form of happiness is not a new six hundred pound bag. The Situationists have got all this sussed in the fifties really, I think that Debord and Vaneigem are much the most interesting of the theorists to come out of that period, and reading Marcuse now, he looks rather clunky, in lots of ways.

BP: You translated Raoul Vaneigem?

IP: Yes – but that was much later on, in the ’80s, or even the ’90s, when that came out, and that’s sort of academic work… But I did do, just for local consumption, some Situationist translation at the time, and some Lacan. That was mainly for my own interest, and to share around with some other people. I don’t think any of that ever saw the light of day anywhere. I still think it’s worth insisting on thinking about the various vectors and trajectories of desire, as Lacan does – Lacan’s no revolutionary, but there are things that can be thought through his thought.

BP: Deleuze and Guattari take up Lacan too…

IP: Particularly Deleuze, yes. But we were reading all this stuff at a time when it was stringently outside the academic framework – we couldn’t write essays on it, we couldn’t go to lectures on it, none of the books was in the libraries, this was an alternative thing. It didn’t last like that, by ’70 or so, people were staying on doing PhDs, and all the people who are now the professors around the land, started using this stuff. But just for the year or two, when Nick Totton and I were editing our poetry magazine, it seemed that universities were not the place to be. Which was one of the reasons why it took me 22 years to come back and do a PhD, because we thought it was quite important that what we were hanging on to should be outside the university structure, and we wanted to try and make intellectual careers outside the co-optive structure of the university.

In the wake of May ’68 there was a new interest in French structuralism, and this is one of the things that was the most intellectually energising and divisive, which became political in Cambridge from sort of ’69-’70 until the end of the MacCabe affair in the late ‘70s. In fact until the rejection of the move to give Derrida an honorary degree. I wasn’t in Cambridge then, so I can only tell you at second hand. But Colin MacCabe was a junior lecturer in the English Faculty, and he was, along with Stephen Heath and Chris Prendergast, responsible for enthusiastic propagation of structuralist ideas; they published a very interesting selection of texts under the title of Signs of the Times, which must have inspired a lot of people.

DM: Do you think the student body is more apathetic than it used to be? If so, is that because the world’s changed, or because students have changed?

IP: Probably demonstrations are smaller when there are demonstrations, and there isn’t the same interest in mass political movements as there has been at certain points. The stop the war moment didn’t get as much support in Cambridge as it did nationally. Things go up and down; the Vietnam war was the focus in the late 60s, and the CND and END were the focus in the mid, early eighties, National Abortion Campaign in the mid-to-late seventies.

BP: Why do you think the CND campaign isn’t so popular anymore, even though there are plans to replace Trident?

IP: There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of New Left Review by Susan Watkins about this, calling for some new updated CND campaigns. I’m very sympathetic to this, CND is where my political engagement began when I was a schoolboy, CND and anti-apartheid, and those were the things that I did in the ‘60s before I came to Cambridge, and didn’t do much of while I was at Cambridge, and then did again in the ’70s, and ’80s. I think that CND is very important, now, I think it’s crucial.

I think partly that there’s a very strong sense that America is so powerful that there is no alternative and how do you set about demanding that America reduce its nuclear arsenal? It’s not a question of the world being about to implode and destroy itself in a conflict between superpowers, at least not at the moment, but who knows what might happen in the future.

Students have far more work to do now than they had in the sixties. I certainly didn’t feel stressed about the amount of time I had for reading. Though to tell you the truth, I didn’t go to any supervisions for my last year and a bit, so I was free to choose how to spend my time. But as far as I can remember, when I was working for Part I, I had plenty of free time. I only had to write one essay a week and I could usually do it in a day or two. I don’t think the conditions are comparable.

The other key thing to remember is that we benefited from free education. Everybody had their fees paid, and there were (means-tested) maintenance grants. We had grants. Nobody I knew really worried about jobs, either; some people who were passionate about a certain career, but mostly assumed they would be able to get into it without too much difficulty. Quite a high proportion of English students still went into teaching, people went into social work, there were a lot of people who were committed to being altruistic members of society. And the growing importance of ‘the alternative’ , of alternative and utopian ways of living, changed the way many of us thought about the future. I didn’t know many people who became bankers or lawyers, though of course some people did.

DM: Whereas now English graduates are targeted by investment banks, and law firms and things. From the day you arrive, you know you’re going to come out twenty thousand pounds in debt. It’s a taxation on the fact that you’ll get a better job – the point is, that means you’re not going to work in the voluntary or public sector or as a teacher.

IP: Because you can’t. And it’s hard enough if you’re going to work in publishing or something because you’ve got to do a year or two as an intern without pay.

DM: It just perpetuates people from Oxford and Cambridge going into very similar types of jobs.

IP: There’s been a huge increase in materialism. That is undeniable. In unthinking materialism – the idea that materialism is the only way of thinking. The idea that the government justifies university education because it improves your earning prospects would have been unthinkable, laughable in the sixties. Or the fifties, I think. And in the early sixties, there were more students in Cambridge from working class homes than there are now, because of the scholarship system. If you did get a scholarship then you were completely paid for. You might not be as rich as some people, but you came out with no financial worries. That was really important. And the loss of that is phenomenally important. The fact that the demonstration against top-up fees last week, or the week before, attracted about a hundred people from four universities seems to me a commentary on the difficulty of getting back to the – you can’t get back to that stage – but getting through the sense that this is not a necessary way of doing it. It’s almost impossible for people to think that it’s not a sensible thing to do to charge fees.

DM: I don’t know whether it’s really short memory on the part of students because the turnover of students is so high. If you have to pay, you just think that this is something I have to pay for – not a public good, not a public service, unlike primary and secondary education.

IP: It’s partly because of expansion of tertiary education since the sixties, which is partly one of the consequences of the sixties. There were 10% of the number of people in higher education then, than there are now. An extra factor of nine extra, makes it that much more expensive – plus everything else is more expensive. Plus the whole notion of ‘expensive’ is different, because accountancy has changed completely. Everything has to be accounted for now, has to have a notional cost. So the whole business of what things cost is a different conceptual area.

BP: Do you think the financial crisis at the moment is going to have an effect on how this plays out?

IP: I was surprised in a way, that there doesn’t seem to have been a very widespread resurgence of Marxist thinking, nobody much seems to suggest that there might be an alternative to capitalism.

DM: Although the word ‘capitalism’ has come back into public discourse, and the word ‘socialism’. At the moment the word ‘socialism’ is being defined by people who are not socialists, like the Republicans who are calling Obama socialist –

IP: Or Bush socialist for –

DM: – or Bush socialist, which I never thought I’d live to see. The danger is that the word gets defined by people who are in no way invested in having it defined as what it is. As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve only ever read a criticism of capitalism in a book, I’ve never seen it on the television. But I think it’s really good that the words are back.

IP: Yes it good. The Historical Materialism conference, which I didn’t go to, at the beginning of November, in London, I’ve been told had a lot of very good analyses. But it’s all very well having a fine critical analysis of something, if nobody takes any notice of it, or if nobody can do anything with it. All that happens is that the truth of it gets taken out and used to advantage by those who can. And things go on the same.

DM: These things come and go. In a time, like now, so many people think that the situation that we are in will never change, and that we have come to the end of history and the pinnacle of civilization, and that it cannot get any better or worse… but in ten years or five years… I think in ’67 or at the beginning of ’68, De Gaulle made a speech where he said ‘I look at the next year with hope of stability and security’ and he was almost completely toppled within the next year. So things change really fast, and I guess we’ve just got to be ready.

IP: After I left Cambridge, and got a job teaching in a further education college in London, I got involved in much more conventional politics and trade union politics, and I joined the International Socialists, and I founded and edited Tech Teacher, the Rank and File paper in the A.T.T.I (further education and higher education trade union), and I did that sort of thing quite intensively for some time… Until I ran out of – well until it ran out of enthusiasm for me, actually, I was expelled from IS – but I was being oppositional, and getting fed up with economism, and the lack of general openness and spark and variety, zaniness.

DM: Had it become the SWP by then?

: No, but it was just beginning to think about it and I thought this was foolish and deluded.

: A lot of what you’ve just said about IS, people are still saying about the SWP…

: Once you get that kind of thing, something that hands down a line, and that claims to run from democratic centralism, it thinks it has the answer, and becomes inflexible and authoritarian.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Interviews, Student Issues

Tactics and leadership: A summary of the debate in the student movement

by Edd Mustill

This is most likely the last post of the year. A big thanks to all (both?) our readers, and here’s hoping for an Unrestful year in 2011.

It’s been good to see so many comrades using the Christmas break to think about the nature of the student movement and where it is going. The following is just a summary of some of the main contributions to the debate from around the internet, with some of my own thoughts thrown in. Apologies if I’ve missed out any contributions; this is not an exhaustive list.

Most controversy has been created by Laurie Penny’s polemic with Alex Callinicos of the SWP. Penny wrote an article attacking “the old politics” and much of the “old left” along with it. Rightly dismissive of the Labour Party’s attempts to attract young people by offering membership for 1p, Penny says that the new activists “have no time for the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.”

Callinicos responded by arguing that the student protests have actually been quite traditional in form, making the interesting point that “the crowd” as a political beast is centuries old. This does, I think, gloss over the possible significance of some of the demos; the “wild demonstration” on 30th November when thousands of people ran miles around London to avoid police kettles is something without precedent in modern times. Callinicos also puts across the SWP’s perspective that a general strike is basically a necessity ASAP. There should be more explanation from those sections of the Left calling for an immediate general strike as to how it would be brought about and what its political role would be, although perhaps that is a debate for another post!

Penny’s response touched on a theoretical justification for her position that I would be interested to hear her elaborate further:

“The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.”

Does she mean that the state has been decentralised? That there are more potential targets for political opposition than there used to be? That movements need to first and foremost think locally? But isn’t it the case that the state is more centralised than ever, and monopoly capitalism as strong as it ever was?

Richard Seymour has picked up on this, warning that such thinking maybe be a symptom of neo-liberalism, rather than a cure for it. He also warns against ideological laxity leading to unprincipled alliances (no doubt some critics of the SWP will chuckle to themselves when they read that). Finally, he makes a brief case for the existence of hard-copy left-wing newspapers as a way of overcoming atomisation in a way that Twitter isn’t capable of.

Billy Bragg, whose political degeneration continued at speed with his desire to get four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to Christmas number one instead of an actual song, is totally wrong to say that the British Left has historically suffered from “ideological nitpicking.” The exact opposite is true: the British Left has always been laced throughout with hardcore empiricism, and a rejection of the importance of theory.

In this sense, those who claim that the movement doesn’t, or shouldn’t, care about ideology have more in common with the old left bureaucrats than they would ever care to admit. Trade union leaderships have always shied away from theory as well. In fact, bureaucracies manage to cement their control over organisations and movements precisely when no theoretical or ideological challenge arises against them.

This is something that Liam has already replied to on this blog, in particular flagging up the dangers of discarding theory too lightly.

This is not to suggest that anyone who is anti-Trot is anti-theory. Far from it, as Patrick has shown on this blog.

Guy Aitchison, at the New Left Project, and James Meadway, at Counterfire, have been discussing the implications of a centralisation of leadership in the movement. Meadway frankly discusses the unevenness of the movement, and argues that the militant actions of students are a direct result of their lack of economic agency – students have to be more radical in order to be noticed at all. Meadway is essentially arguing for students to “turn to the class” without giving up leadership of their own movement.

Also at NLP, FE student Sophie Burge looks forward to more political radicalisation in the fight to save EMA, and predicts, with good reason, that the student movement will develop into a more generalised anti-cuts movement. How and why this will happen is definitely something we need to look at more in the immediate future – how can “the student movement” retain all the militancy that has made it so significant while it reaches out to the “traditional” workers’ movement?

Something that has begun to worry me about some views from “anti-leadership” activists is a lack of perspective on the movement’s significance and size. Paul at Though Cowards Flinch has noticed this too, and defends the traditional far left for, well, engaging in class struggle. He has a warning for us:

“If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.”

For example, as someone who had grown weary of years of boring marches, I agree entirely with Jon Moses’ praise of new forms of protest, but the claim that they are part of a “new political mood” needs to be critically examined. I think what is happening at this stage is more a quiet polarisation than a general radicalisation. We shouldn’t forget that, in the grand scheme of things, only a handful of schools were hit by walkouts, and even at the majority of university campuses little or nothing has happened since November 10th so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Jon also seems to contradict himself: arguing that set piece battles with the forces of the state have given protesters a “political education”, he then goes on to say that such situations are outliving their use, and that we should be decentralising direct action into smaller, faster, more local protests like flashmobs. Nevertheless, discussions of what specific tactics to use on demos themselves have been rare, and it’s good to see this question being raised.

Jo Casserly of Revolution at UCL has raised a significant point; that the aim of the movement should be to bring down the government “by any means necessary.”

On leadership, Jo says something I agree with completely: “…my feeling is that those who praise the ‘leaderless’ nature of our movement are seeing what they want to see, and are often leaders themselves.”

“Leadership” is a word that raises the spectre of bureaucracy in the minds of many people, who are right to be wary given the history of the socialist movement in the last century. Perhaps it’s time we defined leadership in terms of a political phenomenon rather than a group of individuals on a Central Committee. All the most politically conscious elements within the student movement constitute a leadership of sorts. Whoever is behind Network X’s leaderless gathering in Manchester on January 15th / 16th, is part of this leadership too whether they would care to admit this or not.

Harpymarx has picked up on this with a call for collective leadership rather than an abandonment of leadership, staking a claim for the Labour Representation Committee as a model of such practice.

Other things worth reading that, for reasons of space, I’ll only mention briefly: The Really Open University have reproduced an interesting piece from Italy about the student movement there, which concerns itself, among other things, with the question of violence on protests. Alex Snowden at Luna17 has five tactical questions for us to consider.

A large proportion of the volume of material being produced has come from a relatively small number of places (UCL, Leeds), but it’s good to see comrades giving serious thought to serious questions. Hopefully, this will continue into the new year and beyond. Let’s keep talking, debating, campaigning, and fighting.


Filed under Political Strategy, Student Issues